Spain Tour – Tour Day 9

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By Susan Mahr

October 13

Everyone was on their own for breakfast in the hotel dining room, with a large spread of wonderful looking foods – large assortment of cut and whole fruits, including whole persimmons, baskets of all sorts of breads and pastries, a meat and cheese section, typical hot dishes, selection of cereals, four kinds of juices. The elegant room is modeled after the interior of the Alhambra, with mosaic tiles, carved plaster in Arabic symbols, and Moorish arches nearly exact copies of what we’d seen the night before.

We met in the lobby at 8:45 to being our walking tour with Nicholas, under partly cloudy skies in the cool air (55 overnight, but warming quickly as the sun came up only at 8:21). This time we were exploring the outdoor sections of the Alhambra, walking from the hotel along a leafy, park-like path filled with bird song under horse chestnuts, sycamore, hawthorn and a few oaks, with privet and arbutus in the more open areas. We walked up the slope toward the Alhambra with its 150 foot high towers as a symbol of power, past one side of Palace of Charles V where we watched several feral cats stride through the crowds without. As we walked along one of the ubiquitous rock walls, Nicholas pointed out the native Trachelium caeruleum with its clusters of small purple flowers that we would later see all over the place growing in cracks and crevices on walls and even buildings (with reduced gardening staff they can’t always get to removing everything). Then it was into gardens created in the 20th century, with sheared hedges and roses, annual flowers, a persimmon tree and other trees. Nicholas pointed out a huge cypress tree (that would destroy the courtyard of the lions if it ever fell in that direction) with a large Rosa banksia climbing up the evergreen – the yellow-flowering bank’s rose is commonly used to cover pergolas and other structures to provide shade in this area of the country.

We walked by one of the original Arab houses where a calico cat posed in one corner, and a sparrow poked into a hole in the wall, and on to the Palacio del Pórtico with its long rectangular pool filled with water striders zipping along on the surface and reflecting the trees and buildings around it, and nice views of the buildings on the distant hillside through the arched openings at one end. Then we went around the pool to another set of inauthentic gardens and a small house where someone had lived until recently, past the Torre de los Picos, up a flight of stairs to a small patio with fountains in Castilian style, and up more steps to walk along an avenue flanked with vegetable and flower beds. From there we traversed an avenue of tall cypress trees to connect to the main walkway to the Generalife, and started picking up crowds of people here (Nicholas had taken us on a more circuitous, but more interesting path, that few tourists take to get to this point).

We first went through Jardines Nuevos, with its long, thin reflecting pool surrounded by cypress and other evergreens sheared into geometric shapes. This garden, opened in 1930, was never intended to be representative of earlier eras. In addition to the greenery, there were beds with four o’clocks, cannas, bright red Salvia splendens, purple gomphrena, lemon basil, variegated Euphorbia marginata, and other annuals. We walked under a pergola with grapevines and wisteria over its top and had good views of other ancient buildings of the Alhambra across the canyon and the city beyond from one edge of the garden.

We finally entered the actual Generalife, or Gardens of the Architect, getting enveloped by a horde of Asian tourists just as we went into the small main doorway to turn left and walk up a steep flight of stairs to get into the courtyard. The Patio de la Acequia has a long narrow rectangular pool flanked by low myrtle hedges and various plantings, with a big purple bougainvillea spilling over one of the walls. It was nearly impossible to get photos of the serene space looking through the triple arches from either of the two patios at the ends with all the people with selfie sticks posing for photos in front of all the iconic viewpoints. We moved to the Patio de la Sultana, with hedges surrounding its small rectangular pools with spouting water jets, and went up the steps to another level where there were more good views of the city and the Acequia could be seen from above.

We exited the crowded garden about 10:30, going down a winding stone staircase to walk the less crowded Paseo de las Adelfas, a long tunnel of foliage with oleander and bay trained into arches over the set stone path. From there we headed through another walkway lined with tall cypress trees to board a bus that would take us across the city to the old town. There were a few sprinkles on the windshield as we drove by industrial areas, sugar beet and tobacco fields and a few of the old tobacco sheds with their large lattice sides for ventilation, and lots and lots of buildings of all sorts. We were dropped off on one edge of the Albaicín (the old city where the bus can’t negotiate the narrow streets; the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage site) and followed Nicholas through the maze of cobblestone streets zigging and zagging our way between whitewashed walls – stopping a couple of times to look at buildings, two cats meowing at us from a rooftop, and a local market in one of the many small plazas – to get to the first of two carmens (a house in Granada that has a garden) about 11:30.

The Carmen del Aljibe del Rey, located in the heart of the Albaicín between the Zirí wall and the recently restored Place de Cristo de las Azucenas, is now home to the AguaGranada Foundation and houses the Water Interpretation Center. Here we learned about the importance of water in Andalusia throughout the millennia, the use of water in agriculture, especially for irrigation in Al-Andalus, and the sophisticated city water systems of the time involving numerous cisterns and ditches. We went out into the courtyard garden with a rectangular pool, a sheared cube of bay laurel, ancient millstones found on the property used as decoration, an olive tree and other lush plantings and some paving stones that were originally marble slabs used as tables in the fish market. We then went inside to view the scale model of the Albaicín with lights to show the various cisterns and the stone-lined acequia de aynadamar (irrigation ditch). Then we got to descend the very steep steps into the largest cistern of the 11th century (now dry) with four naves covered by barrel vaults and three central arches, which gives its name to the building (aljibe means cistern).

We moved on (20 minutes behind schedule) at noon – stopping momentarily to look at some serpentine stone on a wall which would be too slippery when wet so is never used for paving – walking under partly cloudy skies by Placeta Cristo Azucenas, through more narrow cobblestone alleys between whitewashed walls with blue plumbago or purple bougainvillea spilling over the tops in places, past a musician singing and playing guitar in one small plaza, and through more narrow corridors to get to our next Carmen about 5 minutes later. We rang the bell at the door at this private house, and were told that the gardener was waiting for us at the back gate, so we trooped around and down steep stairs to get to that entrance where we walked under a long pergola covered with bagged grapes to enter the garden. The Carmen de los Cipreses is one of the oldest the Albaicín, built in 1780. We didn’t get to go in the house (the residents were there), but did get to enjoy the wonderful gardens laid out on several terraces. The patio of the house gives way to the wide and beautiful garden, with a central rectangular pool perpendicular to the hillside, a vine-covered pergola along the hillside, and shaded by many trees, including large cypresses in a semicircle around the pool. From the balcony under the vine-covered pergola, where there were a few small metal tables and chairs, we had impressive views of the old buildings and the Alhambra on the hill beyond. We descended the stone steps to the next terrace, a narrow path flanked with lush blue plumbago and purple bougainvillea, and then to the lowest level where there were several fruit trees including citrus, figs, medlar and pomegranate, and a small square pool of water for irrigation.

About 12:50 we left that garden, said our goodbye to Nicholas, and took a few more zigs and zags through narrow cobblestone lanes to get to El Trillo Restaurant a little after 1:00 for lunch. Jonathan took his leave for the rest of the day when we were seated at a long table on the lushly landscaped patio under a large maroon canvas canopy. A carved stone lion head dribbled water into a stone basin on one wall of the patio, with another large fountain nearer the middle amid potted flowers, quince trees and sheared boxwood, with strands of ivy dripping down from the balcony seating area. Waiters took drink orders and brought baskets of warm crusty bread and then eventually we were served two starters to share: a wonderful spinach salad with oranges, mango, whole roasted hazelnuts, cherry tomato halves, raisins, and tiny bits of serrano ham in a sweet creamy dressing and drizzled with raspberry puree and a mound of tabbouleh surrounded on one side with dollops of hummus topped with shaved carrots and beets, mango chunks and sprouts served on a slate plate. Then we each got a huge bowl of very spicy curry rice with chicken, shrimp and asparagus garnished with a small bright red hot serrano pepper, mango chunks and slivers of chives. Those that wanted finished the meal off with a cup of coffee. After Mary escorted two of the passengers down to the main street where they could catch a taxi on their own, we lingered in the warm air chatting for a while, then Tom and Janice struck out on their own before we all headed off about 15 minutes later for the rest of the free afternoon.

The remaining group walked down to the narrow street following along the Río Darro and then on to the Plaza de Santa Ana where most people jumped into a taxi to return to the hotel. Susan, Dan and Mary decided to walk back, turning this way and that through the city streets in the general direction of the hotel for about 15 minutes – passing many other carmens and a few churches along the way – until spying the distinctive orange-colored walls of our hotel high up on the hill – and fortuitously being on exactly the right street to go up the steep slope and many steps to get back to the hotel about 3:45.

At 7:30 we met Jonathan in the lobby to walk the short distance to Restaurant Carmen San Miguel where we were seated on the terrace overlooking the city at one long table. We couldn’t figure out why they had so few patrons on a Saturday night with such a spectacular location, but enjoyed the relaxed ambiance as we ordered wine or other drinks and ordered off the menu and snacked on little bowls of olives and fresh, hot crusty bread. We were all served little individual appetizers of stewed octopus. Everyone chose what they wanted for the rest of their meal, with most ordering just one dish, or two people sharing an appetizer and main, including jamon iberico with almonds, grilled vegetable platter, salads, cheese with quince paste and grapes, plato alpujarreño (the Spanish version of a traditional British ‘fry-up’ breakfast with eggs, sausage, bacon and potato, prevalent throughout Andalusia, particularly in the mountains), and pork loin with pears in red wine. The lights of the city sparkled spread out below us as we dined in the balmy air, enjoying lively conversation. Three of us decided to share a dessert called Biscuit de higos con galletas hojaldradas y sirope de chocolate, translated as “Figs biscuit with biscuit and chocolate syrup” – which really did not describe the tasty white squares filled with chunks of dried figs, but we couldn’t figure out what they were made from. We were finished with our farewell dinner about 10:00, and most of ducked around a wall outside the restaurant to see the Alhambra lit up at night off on the distant hillside. We then hiked back up the slope to our hotel, dispersing to our rooms by about 10:15 pm.

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